The most that Roger Federer’s fans have seen of him lately is in his current commercial with Robert de Niro promoting Switzerland as a tourist destination.
In a slick production, A-lister interacts with A-lister as, hamming it up convincingly, the mountain nation’s most famous citizen extols the virtues of his homeland.
This week Federer returns to action, making what will surely be the last comeback of his career as his 40th birthday looms in August.
Roger Federer has played just two events since the 2019 ATP Finals in London due to knee ops
For this much-anticipated appearance he has chosen the Geneva Open at Switzerland’s stately Eaux-Vives Club de Geneve, an idyllic complex of clay courts nestled by the shore of the city’s famous lake.
It says much about Federer’s status that its tournament director, Thierry Grin, was in a state of near ecstasy when his relatively niche ATP Tour event was chosen as the player’s launch pad to the French Open at the end of this month.
‘The stars have aligned this year, it is a gift from heaven. It is a magnificent signal,’ he said. ‘With the calendar situation and his rescheduling, our tournament fell better and better in his desire to ramp up towards his big goals.’
He reported receiving ‘hundreds’ of calls to his phone every day asking for tickets after the news broke. Only 100 spectators per day will be permitted.
Federer has chosen the Geneva Open as his launch pad for the French Open this month
Federer’s aim, by far his most realistic one, is to build towards a last serious tilt at Wimbledon this summer.
You can tell that the busiest part of the tennis season is approaching because the biggest names are resurfacing after the spotty attendance of recent months.
Serena Williams was at the Italian Open this month, while Andy Murray popped up in the Rome doubles.
Even Nick Kyrgios has announced he will be returning, after refusing to leave home for fear of Covid, playing in Stuttgart’s grass-court championships early in June.
Yet no one will attract the level of international attention of the game’s biggest drawcard, who has been more absent than anyone.
Due to two minor knee surgeries, rather than the pandemic, he has played just two events since the 2019 ATP Finals in London. He made an abortive return at the Qatar Open in early March (narrowly beating Dan Evans) before deciding he needed two more months of physical work and practice.
Despite that, in the most stark example of how nonsensical the temporary semi-frozen rankings have become, he is still listed as world No 8.
This being Federer, his choice of Geneva has inevitably sparked discussion about whether this is the beginning of a farewell tour, in which he would like to give a nod to his own country.
One theory is that he might wish to call it a day in Basel, the October tournament in his hometown where he once served as a ballboy, and where his mother used to work as a volunteer.
There’s rumours Federer may call it a day in Basel, the October tournament in his hometown
This is not entirely discounted by Rene Stauffer, the veteran Swiss journalist who, having known him and his family for more than 25 years and charted his whole career, can be termed as among the world’s leading authorities on Federer. His second book on the player, titled ‘Roger Federer’ (Polaris), has just been published. It details how his parents met while working for a pharmaceutical company in a Johannesburg suburb before moving back to Europe, and how their son morphed from tempestuous teenager to international icon.
Stauffer believes it more likely that Federer could continue well beyond his 40th birthday: ‘I don’t think he has worked so hard for the last 18 months to get fit again just to play a few more tournaments and then stop,’ he says.
‘I could see him playing well into next year. Beneath everything he still loves just playing tennis and being on the tour, and he is happy to do all the work required.
‘He will only be coming back because he is ready. You can’t underestimate how meticulous he is in everything he does.
‘In 2004 he got heatstroke while playing in California. He decided this was never going to happen again, which is why he set up a base in Dubai (where he has a home). He wanted to train there even in their summer, when it is boiling hot, to make sure that he could handle it.’
He also points out that a key decision-maker will be his wife Mirka, who has been hugely influential throughout his career.
‘Mirka was a player and she was always incredibly hard-working and ambitious before her career was ended by a foot injury. She has always been behind him and still is. She told me once that when Roger wins, it feels like she is winning, too.’
Federer’s most realistic aim is to build towards a last serious tilt at Wimbledon this summer
After a bye this week, Federer, who revealed that he has been fully vaccinated, will face either Pablo Andujar or Australian Jordan Thompson. On clay, he will hold few terrors for opponents, but on grass nobody will wish to be near him in the draw.
These are strange times for tennis and not just because its cross-border nature has meant the pandemic interfering more than with most sports. A lot of its biggest names are in their 30s and successors have yet to fully establish themselves.
A certain amount of nervousness pervades over what happens when the likes of Federer fade away.
It could be that only then will the sport be forced to confront issues like its incoherent governance and natural reluctance to innovate in a fast-changing sports marketplace.
For now, starting this week on the shores of Lake Geneva, a remote audience should enjoy Federer while it can.